For the retail sector, last year was one of hardship but also one of returning good times. The outbreak of SARS was a major initial blow but the later introduction of the "individual visitor" scheme managed to re-ignite retail sales and the overall tourist environment once the WHO had given Hong Kong a clean bill of health.
In cosmetics retailing total sales volume is usually greater in the second half of the year and the visit scheme definitely helped to improve business, according to Alan Chan, executive director of Bonjour Holdings Limited.
Mr Chan says local customers have always been the company's major market and that they do not rely chiefly on tourists. He does agree, though, that mainland tourists have boosted business growth and expects a higher proportion of the company's future sales to be to mainland visitors.
The impetus given by mainlanders in the second half of 2003 was especially obvious in or near the best-known tourist spots. "One of our shops in Mongkok had around 70 percent business growth," says Mr Chan. With an improving economy and an increasing number of mainland shoppers, he expects the company will enjoy higher business growth in 2004.
Bonjour's expansion plan is similar to last year's. They intend to hire about 200 new recruits and the additional staff will take up various positions in the company's headquarters, retail outlets and beauty salons. Most will be frontline sales positions but Mr Chan admits suitable candidates are hard to find in the cosmetics industry. He points out that the feedback from last year's recruitment drive was less than satisfactory.
In a store, sales people will mostly promote and sell products to customers. Supporting team members deal with the loading of goods, shelf-filling and cleaning. Cashiers check and receive customers' payments and help to ensure the smooth operation of the business.
Since Bonjour sells many different brands of cosmetics, frontline sales staff need to be well-versed in product knowledge. Therefore, experience is important and Mr Chan says two to three years' previous experience is a basic requirement.
Training in product knowledge, sales skills and service attitude is provided by Bonjour to complement on-the-job training. On occasion, well-known brands will send representatives to give special seminars to broaden the product knowledge of frontline staff.
As the number of mainland customers increases, fluent Putonghua will be a distinct advantage and staff with language skills will usually be placed in tourist areas. "We will consider including Putonghua in our training," says Mr Chan.
Generally, there are no great differences between serving local and mainland customers but Mr Chan observes that mainlanders are more receptive to the suggestions of sales people. He believes local shoppers have more opportunity to come across different brands and products, making them choosy. These days, mainland visitors tend to spend more because of being relaxed while on vacation.
The career path for sales people depends on individual expectations. Income can be very attractive and some staff opt to remain in frontline positions instead of accepting promotion to supervisory level. "However, it is possible for sales personnel to get promoted to management level," Mr Chan emphasises, adding that, at present, management positions in Bonjour are usually filled by internal candidates.
With few competitors but keen competition, Mr Chan believes that superior service and product range are the key factors for success in cosmetics retailing. "To do our best every day is the most important thing," he notes.